UN chemical weapon inspectors
After a major chemical attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus, Syria, the United States and many of its allies struggled to find a response. Attempting to enforce its “red line”, America sought to conduct a series of limited strikes against the Syrian regime to deter future chemical warfare and degrade its capability to conduct it.
Yet steadfast allies such as Britain balked at attack, while the domestic outcry at home force the administration of President Barack Obama into requesting a vote on an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF)—which stood little chance of passing in Congress. Read More
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. Defense Department Photo
Last week Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined American military options in Syria, in response to a threatened hold on his reconfirmation by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a letter signed by McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Both senators are proponents of American intervention in Syria, and both are frustrated by what they believe is the administration’s slow and limited decision to intervene in Syria’s conflict. The traditions of American civil-military relations make uniformed discussions of military options in politically charged issues—especially in a public forum—a delicate issue. Nevertheless, in order to secure a second term as JCS chairman, and in response to a formal request, Dempsey presented an unclassified assessment of five options for American military involvement in Syria. Read More
Free Syrian Army fighters. Reuters Photo
As the United States begins providing arms to Syrian rebels , it enters an increasingly complex arena of arms-trafficking and proxy warfare. The highly factionalized Syrian rebellion and the combined third-party actors supporting it—often with competing aims—mean U.S. attempts to shape the Syrian conflict through military support will depend not simply on American resources and intentions, but the dynamics of the civil war and the network of actors that facilitates its logistics. With the U.S. role in Syrian arms-trafficking shifting from one of restraint to one of support, the difficulties encountered in producing viable political outcomes in Syria are likely to persist. Read More
After years of debate and increased involvement in the training and logistical support of Syrian rebel forces, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to begin directly arming opponents of the Bashar al Assad regime. Casualties from Syria’s civil war already number at least 93,000 according to some sources, and millions of Syrians are now refugees or internally displaced.
Meanwhile, the United States now confirms that Syria used chemical weapons in a number of instances, at a small scale that many fear may escalate. Chemical-weapons use provided rhetorical justification to this policy decision, but is not the entire reality of the matter. Internal pressure and Free Syrian Army leadership’s refusal to participate in a new round of negotiations at Geneva without U.S. weapons played a major role. Unfortunately for the United States and the administration, neither the known particulars of the U.S. plan, nor the concept of providing arms to rebel forces generally, appears likely to turn the war’s tide or secure lasting U.S. influence in Syria. Read More
Syrian protestors asking for a no-fly zone in 2011. European Pressphoto Agency
With the human toll mounting, the United States getting more involved in training, aid, and arms transfers, and continued calls for intervention, U.S. policymakers are grappling with the administration’s relatively non-interventionist stance on Syria. U.S. concerns about the increasing power of jihadist groups within rebel ranks, the possibility of loose chemical weapons, and the overarching desire to shorten the conflict remain. How has the course of events changed the logic of a no-fly zone, or intervention to secure chemical weapons? Read More
Undated picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his advisors.
Parsing harrowing threat from hot air is an essential task for monitoring the Korean peninsula. North Korean leaders and propaganda outlets unfailingly respond to times of crisis with apocalyptic language.
After the 2010 bombardment of the disputed Yeonpyeong island, for example, North Korea warned of a “merciless shower” and vowed renewed war would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
Kim Jong-un, since succeeding his late father in December 2011, has overseen new missile tests, and in February 2013 declared his country was conducting its third nuclear test. With that latest crisis have come new rounds of grave statements. Read More
The unexpected departure of David Petraeus as head of the top U.S. spy agency has opened up an opportunity for the administration to set the course for the CIA for the second Obama term. The following are likely choices for next U.S. top spy.
The Short List:
Michael Morell is the current acting CIA Director – a role he filled in the interregnum between directors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus.
Michael Morell, AP
Before taking the job in 2010, Morell served as the Director of Intelligence, heading up the CIA’s foreign analysis wing. Morell is a tested — and by some accounts a heavily favored candidate. However Morell is a departure from the Agency’s recent course and would likely shift its emphasis from kinetics back to intelligence analysis. His experience with Asia jibes with the President and current administration’s so-called pivot to Asia.
John O. Brennan , Current Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, could be a contender for the job. Brennan spent nearly 30 years with the CIA. His work, ranging from the Near East to South Asia, gave him the regional backing commensurate with the range of U.S.’s most intense counterterrorism operations.
John Brennan, White House Photo
It would not be Brennan’s first shot at the job. He was a rumored favorite in 2008, but his controversial statements in favor of rendition and accused complicity in torture as an advisor to former CIA Director George Tenet pushed the administration to nominate him for a position with lower barriers to entry. Since then he has been a key figure in the expansive targeted killing campaigns against al Qaeda and its affiliated movements, and a consistent defender of its practical logic. Brennan would be a strong choice for continuity, and maintains the President’s confidence. But he would be as unappealing for those looking to give the CIA a fresh start from its counterterrorism focus. And after a long career in public service, Brennan may prefer retirement to promotion.
In July, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mullalem declared that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would go unused in its civil war – unless a foreign power chose to intervene. The threat constituted a rare confirmation of the regime’s unconventional arsenal. The declaration raised serious concerns about U.S. policies in the event the regime did use its chemical or biological weapons. President Obama stated this would constitute a “red line” with “enormous consequences” that would alter calculations for military actions.
Given the various risks concerned with the proliferation or use of unconventional weapons, particularly chemical weapons, understanding the scope and requirements of potential military missions is essential. The first major consideration is whether U.S. and potential allied military strikes would focus on destroying, deterring, or securing Syrian weapons stocks. While a deterrent threat can be made without any military deployment, destroying Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would require airstrikes and special operations teams. A mission to secure Syria’s WMDs would likely be the most costly and dangerous of all, as it would likely involve tens of thousands of foreign ground troops, perhaps as many as 75,000, according to at least one press report.
A sailor from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11, adjusts his Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear during a simulated chemical agent attack during a field training exercise in 2008. U.S. Navy Photo
A mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks could perform a preventive, preemptive or mitigating measure. Effectively degrading the entire arsenal would likely require an extremely wide target set. Syria has roughly 50 sites involved in manufacturing or storing chemical weapons. Its arsenal consists of G and V-series nerve agents, which block neurotransmitters, causing convulsions and death through loss of respiratory control, as well as blistering agents, whose chemical burns restrict respiration and form large, painful blisters on the skin. Both are absorbable through the lungs or skin, requiring a full body suit for adequate protection. Between Syria’s VX, Sarin, and Tabun nerve agents, and its mustard gas blistering agents, this totals to several hundred tons of chemical agents stockpiled for combat use.
As the Syrian civil war escalates and expands, policy makers are increasingly examining proposals to patrol “safe,” “liberated,” or “buffer zones” with military aircraft. Creating safe zones, Turkish officials have argued, could relieve human suffering and hasten the fall of the Assad regime without a more costly direct intervention. Ubiquitous in Western interventions since Operation Provide Comfort in postwar Iraq, and infamous in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, safe zones once again appear a straightforward solution to an intractable conflict. Yet the strategic and logistical details present serious challenges. Despite the relatively easy execution of a safe zone around Benghazi in Libya, a comparable effort to protect besieged cities in Syria would be much more costly and difficult.
A previous post outlined the significant aerial and maritime demands for creating a no-fly zone, which would be a prerequisite to creating a safe zone over any part of Syria. Inadequate suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) would be problematic enough for air superiority fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, but would be even more threatening for aircraft performing ground interdiction strikes.
Despite the prominence of attack helicopters and combat jets in discussions of the Syrian conflict, destroying Syrian air power is unlikely to be either decisive overall or sufficient to defend safe zones.
The success of the Libyan air intervention is a historical anomaly. In 1993, NATO’s Deny Flight no-fly zone over Bosnia failed to deter ground forces from attacking designated safe areas, eventually requiring ground bombardment and, more importantly, a massive Croatian ground offensive to defeat Serbian forces. In Iraq after the Gulf War, no-fly zones and years of punitive bombardments did not dissuade Saddam Hussein from repeatedly launching ground attacks into Shia and Kurdish areas. In Libya, it was rapidly obvious that destroying the Libyan ground threat to Benghazi, not simply its air force, was necessary to defend safe zones.
A Libya-style military intervention in Syria could take up to six times as many combat aircraft as last year’s Operation Odyssey Dawn, according to a recent analysis from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The analysis comes as calls are increasing to intervene in the escalating civil war in Syria.
USS Barry (DDG 52) fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011. U.S. Navy Photo
When Odyssey Dawn began in March 2011, it appeared to hail a new model for military interventions. The relatively swift, painless and low-cost application of offshore and aerial power against a hostile regime to protect a rising hub of Libyan resistance in Benghazi began the military unraveling of the Gadhafi regime. Today, as Syria’s own civil war intensifies and officials such as Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman call for military action, might another aerial and offshore campaign effectively establish a haven for the Syrian opposition and topple the Syrian government?
Brian Haggerty, doctoral candidate at MIT, recently released an extensive open-source analysis of what an aerial campaign to suppress Syrian air defenses and establish a safe zone would entail. While the operation is feasible, mitigating its significant risks would require a major campaign—one requiring at least 191 strike aircraft, at least six times the number of comparable aircraft in the opening phase of Odyssey Dawn, and perhaps several times more bombers and cruise missiles.
Discerning the capability of Syria’s integrated air defense system (IADS) is critical to that question. American officials, such as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stress the sophistication of Syria’s IADS relative to other countries in the region and particularly in comparison with Libya. Syria has faced American air power before, while the embarrassments of Israel defeating of its air force in the 1982 Lebanon War and destroying a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 left it acutely aware of the need to deter and defeat hostile air power.